Make the Connection

Over the last few months, I have made my way back into doing what brings me the most joy… training and teaching leaders. In this particular case, I was training teacher leaders. It’s been incredibly gratifying listening to teachers engage in discussion allowing them the opportunity to hash out their feelings about many of the challenges they have encountered over this past school year. Poverty, trauma, mental health, behavior, mindset; these are just a handful of the many issues impeding educators’ ability to effectively engage students in learning. While I have advised many educators on ways to help connect with students, it really doesn’t take much more than a big heart and an open mind!

How well do you know your students? How much effort do you put forth to get to know them? I have worked with teachers who have been so open with their students; they have given their personal phone number or attended events with students’ families. Others weren’t as open for whatever reason and that’s okay. However, when that is the case, it is important that these teachers discover more creative ways to connect with students. This requires intention and purpose.

As schools prepare to open their doors for the new school year, I want to offer a simple way to make connections with students. Simply remember these three words: relevant, real, and rapport. These three R’s can go along way when working to make connections with your students. Let me offer an example…

I have always found interesting, the number of students that think teachers don’t eat, sleep, or breathe! Seems pretty foolish, right? However, I have literally had several conversations with students about something as simple as a trip to the grocery store, only to be met with a gasp, then, “You go to the grocery store??!!” At this point, we’d find ourselves looking at each other with cocked heads and equal amounts of confusion. I’d simply answer in affirmation and realized that to some students, the “teacher” was some sort of fantasy, fairy tale character, and because of this, I had to figure out a way to bring myself to life! I had to make myself relevant and real outside of the classroom in order to build a stronger rapport inside of the classroom.

I’d like to offer you this… During the first days of school, share a bit of your world with students. It doesn’t have to be anything extremely private, but should be something you wouldn’t mind other people knowing. Think about your hobbies or something you are passionate about doing in your personal time. For example, I am an avid sports mom and I also played sports when I was younger, so I would often share photos and updates about my children’s games or races.  In return, I would learn about the sports my students were playing, receive game schedules; hear about their games and tournaments, their wins and their losses. Now, because I have shared my own love of sports and expressed interest in theirs, I have opened up opportunities for further conversation or even a pickup game or race at recess, in spite of the pain that was sure to come as a result!  Not only do we talk about our own experiences, we ended up having discussions about professional sports and sports players! So many life lessons can be taught to them simply because I was willing to make the connection. Showing that I value them and what is important to them has now connected our worlds and I have become more relevant, real, and built a foundation for a stronger relationship. It didn’t take research or a lot of planning. It simply took me sharing a piece of me and expressing interest in them. As a result, my students became more responsive to my directions, decreased behaviors, increased participation, and increased engagement in my lessons.

This seems simple enough, I know, but sometimes it seems the simplest of things become the first things go by the wayside when teaching gets tough. I also realize there is much more to engaging students than this, but this is a great place to start at the beginning of the year. Believe me, I, both, acknowledge and understand that the year gets long, planning becomes monotonous, student behaviors go awry, and patience gets short. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Remember that what you are feeling, more than likely students are feeling too, so make it your plan for the entire year, intentionally and purposefully, to simply make the connection.

Know That You’re AMAZING!!

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Some months ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Matrix”. In it, I share the struggles my oldest has experienced with reading fluency and comprehension. I know I’ve spoken of him a great deal, but I am in absolute awe at the progress he’s made! I just can’t help it! All of my children are making great gains academically, but he truly exemplifies perseverance and hard work! He’s the one that has to work harder and longer, but he does it and he has proven to himself that it pays off!

He is now in the 6th grade and even though it takes him a little longer to do some things, he has demonstrated to himself that he does have the ability to achieve. He has made the Honor Roll all this year! Even with that, he has remained in disbelief about his Honor Roll status.  He didn’t believe it because he has doubted his capability for so many years! So much that he has stated, out loud, “I can’t get good grades. I’m not smart.” My husband and I looked at each other with astonishment and then came my response, “WHAT?!! Not only are you smart…you’re amazing!!”

A couple of days ago, he made a profound statement after taking his Reading OAA. He had been quite anxious about it to say the least and understandably so considering the difficulty he’s experienced with standardized testing thus far. In a concerted effort to boost students confidence, the school asks that parents write their students a note of encouragement for test days. I wrote him the attached note, not realizing the true impact it would have!

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When he called me after school, the first thing he said to me was he thought he did really well this time! He has NEVER sounded more confident and sure of himself!! It was a profound revelation from he who thought it to be impossible. I was filled with so much joy! I told him that was AWESOME! He continued by saying, “Yeah, I did slack a couple of times, but then I read your note and it helped me get focused!” I said, “Well, you DO know you’re amazing, right?”

I’ve said it before, there is power in words.  We all want our children to reach higher and go farther.  You know the saying, “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. It is vital that we continue to instill in our students the importance of hard work and the diligent commitment it takes to succeed.  Come on, really. You do know they are amazing, right? So, no matter what it takes, we need to keep telling our children that they have a gift to share with the world, that they are capable of anything,  and just how absolutely amazing they truly are.

Keep It Movin!!!

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Conferences never cease to amaze me.  Typically, we spend two nights a year meeting with parents to discuss plans for the year, student behavior, and student progress.  The conversation generally starts with a highlight of the student’s grades and their academic performance.  I work hard to keep things as positive as possible, unless there is an imperative need to discuss the negative in more detail.  Most of the time, parents whose student requires a greater focus on negative behavior never show up anyway, which I still struggle to understand.  The only thing I can determine is that these parents just don’t want to hear one more negative thing about their child. As a parent, I guess I understand that. As an educator, I want to work with parents to make positive changes in their child’s life.

As I contemplate on that, I think about my Victor. You may remember Victor from a previous blog post. I spoke to him about changing his behavior to demonstrate the greatness inside of him rather than the behavior his friends and even some adults expected of him.  I talked with him about being confident with regard to his academic ability as well as his leadership ability.  I assured him that it was okay to be a positive role model rather than a negative one and that in doing so; he could be just as popular.  Well, Victor has made great strides since that conversation in December.  Don’t get me wrong, he still has some work to do, but what is certain is that he needs someone to continuously remind him of his greatness and to keep it movin after every accomplishment he makes, otherwise, he will lose sight of his objective. Therefore, when Victor is off task or pulled in the opposite direction of his greater ability, all I have to do is say, “Greatness”, and he responds appropriately.  Since our conversation prior to winter break, Victor remains on task during instruction most of the time.  I rarely see any pouting when he is working in class and he even completed his winter break homework.  He has not been sent to the office for disruptive behavior and has even joined the school’s Safety Patrol program.  His potential is more than apparent but my hope for him is to just remember that he has to keep pushing.  He has to…keep it movin!

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More recently during conferences, I met with a father who, first, was not required to conference for his child, and second, had not confirmed a time to conference for his child, so I wasn’t expecting him.  Murray’s father, who speaks limited English, came to see me simply to check on his son’s academic and behavioral progress.  Murray is far from the typical description of a “behavior problem”. In fact, he has made the Merit Roll this quarter and has become very detailed in his work. He does however enjoy socializing quite a bit, which does become a distraction to his learning.  For the most part, though, Murray is right on track. His father expresses how proud he is of his boy, then looks at me and tells me that he always tells his son that he can be whatever he wants to be and that he wants him to do better than he did himself. Of course he does.  It’s what every parent wants for their child, right?

Murray has three other siblings, two older and one younger. They are all performing at or above grade level academically, so father is extremely proud, as he should be.  Murray is listening to his father proudly and intently.  I look at him and confirm that we are all so very proud of his accomplishments this quarter, but explained that he still has work to do.  Even though he has worked hard to earn these grades, I explained, “You have to keep it movin!” It’s at this time I ask Murray to recite a couple of lines from our Scholar Statement. I ask, “With hard work, you can do what?” “Anything.”, he responds. “With hard work, you can be what?” “Anything.”, he responds. “And who is in control of your future?” I ask.  He responds, “I am!”  I add that it is not too early to begin thinking of his future and that he cannot get comfortable with the success he has made this quarter.  I tell him he has to keep it movin. I maintain that he has to continue working hard to make the grade, so, “You have to keep it movin!” I tell him. His dad nodded in agreement and appreciation for the reiteration as our conference ended.

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What is ironic about this entire conversation is that my pastor had just spoken on the topic of “keeping it movin” in that past Sunday’s sermon. He explained that attaining success in anything does not stop once you reach a set goal.  Once you reach your goal, you keep it movin and set a new goal!  How profound is that? You see, in the past, “keep it movin” meant, go away, get a life, get to steppin’, and leave me alone! But, now, in a more positive connotation, these few words could have powerful implications on us as educators as well as on our students. This phrase has helped me to define perseverance for my students in a different way. In a way they seem to better understand!

As educators, we face many challenges. We are charged with the task of determining the academic needs of anywhere between 20-30 students. We assess each one, individually or as a group, frequently, at their individual level, at many times throughout the year.  We assess and monitor our students in a variety of methods in order to predict their possible success on the state assessment.  Sometimes, the things we do work.  Sometimes they don’t.  The fact of the matter is, however, that regardless of the outcome, it is at that point that we make the conscious decision whether to keep it movin or not, when in reality, there should be no decision to make. As they say, it is what it is. When our students master a skill, keep it movin and challenge them to master the next.  Even when they don’t master the skill, we need not give up on their ability to succeed, nor should we focus on what may appear, at that particular time, to be our inability to reach our students. Instead, we need to keep it movin! Remain focused on our purpose. Remember the commitment we made to children the moment we decided to become educators. Check your approach, change your instruction, and keep it movin! Students inability to master a skill does not indicate an unwillingness to learn, but rather necessitates a different way of teaching in order for them to receive it, process it, and finally, to master it.  It is an opportunity to define our instruction and make it better. So, instead of giving up, keep it movin! When students master skills beyond their ability, it does not mean your job is complete. What it does mean, is that you have more work to do! So, keep it movin! It’s our duty and obligation to push our students beyond their seemingly confined limits. It is our job as educators to determine just how far we can push. Therefore, you have to keep it movin!

Listen, no matter the level of success, no matter how big or small their dream, we have to help our students see that even when they reach one goal, another goal is waiting in the ranks. Once you acquire one accomplishment, keep it movin…on to the next one! In like fashion, we as educators need to model how to set goals and persevere through barriers in order to reach them.  We need to show our students what can happen when they keep it movin.  So, get out there and get busy.  There is no time to waste. There is still much work to be done. So, go ahead! What are you waiting for? Keep it movin!!

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“The Matrix”: An Attempt at Evading the Inevitable

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During my last 13 years in education, my husband and I have had three children.  It’s true what “they” say…each one of them has their own identity. Each has their personal strengths and weaknesses. Two boys and a girl. Our youngest, a pretty little girl with tomboy tendencies; a girl after her mother’s own heart! She loves pink and purple, frilly dresses, wrestling with her brothers, running track, doing 1st grade homework, and reading! Everything a tomboy, teacher mom could ask for in a perfect little girl. Ok, I’m probably a little biased.

Our middle son, a fourth grader, is the dirty playground, playing in puddles, neighborhood pick up football game type.  He insists on playing with the big kids in the neighborhood. Exactly the things that make a daddy’s chest puff out with pride.  He does have a sensitive side, as well I must say.  He’s a pretty well-rounded young man for this 21st century day and age, if I do say so myself.  He is also the one that strives for academic perfection at this point and time.  Admittedly, we have to encourage him to put his book down or leave it at home when we run errands.  He reads all…the… time! I mean, that’s heavenly for a teacher mom, right?

Our oldest son, our first born, well…he learned to entertain himself at an early age. We were told that this was typical of the first-born, so, we went with it.  While he entertained himself, he entertained us as well. He loved Sesame Street, The Backyardigans, and Scooby-Doo and we thought that was so adorable at the time.  Three years into teaching, I thought I was doing everything right in terms of introducing him to literacy. I had labels all around the house (door, refrigerator, bathroom, etc.), we read to him every night, and he listened to books on tape. I mean, we were even teaching him sight words BEFORE he went to kindergarten! Everything you can think of, we did! After all, I am a teacher, so, I knew exactly what he needed to begin obtaining strong literacy skills, right?

By the middle of first grade, we began to notice that our oldest, our first-born, was struggling with reading. How could this possibly be? I mean, I’m a teacher!! I’m doing everything RIGHT!  He began to show strength in the area of mathematics, but was now shying away from reading. He didn’t want to practice reading at night and certainly didn’t want to talk about the pictures and what was happening in the story. His demeanor seemed to be saying, “Hey teacher mom, will you please just read the story.” He was beginning to become uninterested in anything that involved reading. We just assumed this was developmental. Everything will come together soon. His reading will improve and he’ll be a lover of reading, just like we dreamed he would be. After all, his mother IS a teacher and that’s how things are supposed to be, right?

I was heartbroken as things did not get better right away and in fact, reading is still a major struggle for our now 6th grader. Don’t get me wrong, he’s made excellent strides, but, in all honesty, reading remains his pain staking nemesis; the thorn in his side; his “matrix”. To him, reading was pages among pages of letters that simply frustrated him every day and evening at the beginning literacy stages. “What is this? What is going on?”, I thought to myself so very often. His MOTHER is a TEACHER for heaven’s sake! Why doesn’t he love this…this…reading! Tested…yes! Tutored…yes! Genres of interest? Certainly. Modeled behavior? Absolutely, yes, yes, yes!  We tried all of those things. Been there and done that. He, himself would admit, “Yes, reading is ok, but, it’s hard.”, so he did, and still does, everything he can to get around it. Therefore, the fact remains, that he, our first-born, sees reading as a matrix and evades reading at all costs. My goodness! Doesn’t he realize that reading is the main artery that cultivates every other subject? Reading is inevitable! There is no way around it! It’s connected to everything we do! Of course he knows this! For goodness sake…HIS MOTHER….IS…A TEACHER!

Well, in the grand scheme of things, he DOES enjoy reading about historical fiction and books about nature…for a few minutes at least. He gets excited about buying books at the book fair and going to the public library and we are extremely proud of him and his siblings for that matter for the gains they have all made. But when it comes down to it, if our son had to choose reading on his own, without prompting… Oh, no. This wouldn’t be number one on his list of things to do. He evades that matrix at every opportunity, even choosing to do more chores before reading! Yes, yes…I AM lucky in that aspect.

So, what of this thing called “reading”?  How do we as teachers get our students to appreciate this matrix that surrounds us?  We work with 20, 25, 30 students everyday and are suppose to put that teacher touch on literacy and reading to make it exciting and fun. But, what about that “one”? That one like my oldest son, who passed all the “identifying” assessments, and just simply is not motivated to read. How do we help them to enter the matrix with no fear? There is no portal to close and no magic pills to take to protect us from it or to avoid it. There is no evading what is inevitable! Reading is all around us! How do we help our students get motivated and connect with reading? I mean, come on…we ARE teachers after all. We DO have all the answers to everything. Don’t we?